Archive for August, 2007

Why I am not a Jedi Knight

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

I’ve been working with the team behind Brighton Wok for some time now. It’s been very exciting and interesting seeing a feature length movie come together. Almost everybody involved in the movie is in their twenties and we’re all very passionate about almost every detail of the movie.

Cinema is changing very much at the moment. This evening, I watched Dark Resurrection, a Star Wars fan movie from Italy. The movie is being distributed to free on various file sharing networks and it can also be streamed from their site. I recommend the movie and am looking forward to watching the second part. The visual style of the movie was only vaguely similar to that of the original movies, which makes the series look fresher.

*SPOILERS BEGIN*

The story is of a young Jedi whose destiny is to fight an evil Sith lord and possibly turn to the dark side. Near the beginning of the movie, we see her training with her Jedi Master. She beats her teacher and knocks him to the ground. He admonishes her for using anger in order to win the fight. Talk about sore losers! Later, the Jedi master tells his student to control her fear as if fear of people who want to kill you with a red light sabre is a bad thing.

The master is mortally wounded by the Sith. The yound Jedi refuses to accept the death of her master and it appears that she turns to the dark side in order to resurrect him.

When the 2001 census was conducted, there was a lot of talk about the fact that the government asked us to say what our religion was. Word got around that if 10,000 or more people put down the same religion, that would become an official religion of the country and that “Jedi Knight” should be made into an official religion. For want of anything better to say, I went along with this. Now, I think that the Jedi religion would be a pretty crap way to live your life.

For a start, suppressing anger and fear must be a counter-productive tactic. If you feel angry, then you believe that something about your situation (e.g. someone’s behaviour) is somehow unacceptable. Your anger should disappear if the situation changes (the other person changes their behaviour or you learn something that changes the way that you understand the situation). Piously turning from anger achieves nothing.

Consider what would happen if we tried to suppress distrust in a similar way. If I don’t trust somebody, I would be a fool to say to myself: “Don’t give in to fear.” I should either get the person who I don’t trust to reassure me in some way or distance myself from that person.

Fear of anger and confrontation and avoiding them at all possible cost seem to be a common pathologies and very poor ways to deal with your problems. In economics, credit that is freely and easily given out can lead to growth. However, if it is too freely and too easily given out, you end up with a situation like the current sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Something similar happens in personal relationships when anger and confrontation are avoided. It seems reasonable at first to try to suppress your anger and get on with things. Eventually, there will be a painful “correction” (to use a term from markets) when one or both of the parties decides to act on their pent up aggression. Confrontation can be avoided if you give up and move away. Otherwise, it can only be delayed unless somebody decides to act creatively to resolve the conflict.

*SPOILERS END*

Is selling your produce a mistake?

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

There was a report on tonight’s edition of Newsnight on the growing ethanol industry in the corn belt of the US. The growth of this industry was hailed by profiting farmers, those concerned about energy security and those worried by carbon emissions.

However, the report warned that increased corn production is damaging the environment as millions of tonnes of fertiliser are being washed from the fields into the rivers and affecting the fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another concern is that the increased price of corn would drive up the price of food and that people in developing countries might starve. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs warns that increased global corn prices have caused the price of tortillas to increase by 100%. Is food worth less than fuel? Are American companies putting profits before people?

How should the various parties respond to this situation? What are their aims and options?

First consider the ethanol producers and corn farmers in the US and Mexico. They are benefiting from increased sales and higher sales prices. Is it reasonable to expect the farmers to be worried about whether their corn is sold for ethanol or food? Why should the ethanol manufacturers feel guilty about paying the top prices to their suppliers?

Then there is the US government, which currently gives tax breaks to the ethanol manufacturers. The government could reduce these tax breaks, reducing the profits of the industry and hurting the pockets of drivers. If oil prices continue to rise and worries about buying oil from dodgy regimes don’t go away, the increased cost might be absorbed by the consumer, increasing tax revenues to the government whilst pissing everyone else off.

They could also increase the tax breaks to ethanol plants, which would benefit every one in the industry and drivers but this would increase the impact on the environment.

The ethanol plants can’t stop buying their main raw material. The US government could introduce tariffs on Mexican corn. This would increase profits for American farmers but also increase the price at the pump for American drivers and reduce the profits of the ethanol plants. The tariffs would also reduce profits for Mexican corn farmers and Mexico’s income of foreign capital. Would this help the poor people of Mexico by reducing the price of corn and allowing them to eat or would the hampered exports and reduced GDP be worse for them in the medium to long term?

Consider this from the Mexican government’s point of view. They could put a cap exports of corn to try to stop the corn leaving the country. This would only benefit Brazil and other countries which export ethanol from crops as they would be depriving themselves of a source of foreign money. Do governments ever cap exports?

Filipe Calderon, the Mexican president’s response was to cap the price of tortillas. This might avoid profiteering but it won’t stop the corn going over seas. If the price of tortillas is capped, Mexican farmers have even more reason to try to sell their corn to the US. This could lead to a scarcity of corn.

Another response the Mexican president had was to increase the quota of duty free corn products coming from the US. If the people of Mexico cannot afford to buy food, why are there any tariffs on food imports? If Mexico can sell some corn products to America whilst buying others from them; the price difference either way cannot be very great, otherwise the American corn market would buy all the corn and none would be left to sell to the Mexicans.

It seems that barriers to free trade are the problem here and the biggest threat to the availability of food to the people of Mexico is government interference in trade.

Back to the Old School

Sunday, August 5th, 2007

I live in shared accommodation and I have a continual battle with one of my house mates over whether to drink instant or freshly ground coffee.

To my house mate, instant coffee represents the worst of the bland, homogenised, mass-produced world that he believes we live in.

To me, if it weren’t for mass production, we’re be stuck with much lower quality products at much higher prices. Almost all of everyone’s time would be taken up jury-rigging basic implements that would only be used in one home. Products may be boring and uniform because of mass production but our lives would be much more boring and uniform without it.

Grinding your own coffee beans is ritual for its own sake and makes artisanship a fetish. I spend most of my professional life writing Perl, PHP and JavaScript. I like these languages a lot as they allow me to go from idea to working site in minimal time. The languages don’t get in the way of the task. But I always suspect that these languages are like instant coffee: convenient but lacking in some way. At the back of my mind there’s the nagging worry that if I were to re-write some parts of my pragrams in C as extensions to PHP, they would run more quickly. But writing programs in C is so much more cumbersome. There’s so much extra work and so many more things that can go wrong.

In a fashion similar to that of those primitivists who worship Ray Mears, I’ve been playing around with C recently. To make the experience more authentic, I’ve worked entirely at a green-on-black command line and used emacs. Even the simplest programs that could be Perl one-liners take endless Google searches to make. But like whittling an antler with a lump of flint into a knive or grinding coffee beans yourself, there is a strange satisfaction in the process. Because of the extra effort required, you progress at a slower pace, giving you time to better understand what you are doing and focus intently on the task. While I wouldn’t want to take that long to do everything, I enjoy visiting that simpler world every once in a while.

My house mate and I should probably both drink less coffee.